Mysticism and Prophecy: the intimate connection
A sermon by Garry Deverell, 15 July 2001
Texts: Amos 7.7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10. 25-37
Tonight I want to share with you a great puzzlement of mine, a puzzlement which arose from a particular set of historical circumstances, circumstances which may well have shaped my life and thinking more deeply and profoundly than almost any-thing, or any-one, else. 'Why is it', I ask myself, 'why is it that the Beatles released All You Need is Love, that song of all songs, and then, and then they broke up?' . . . It is a puzzle, is it not, this predilection in human beings for separating those things that God intended to be together. I mean, let's think about it for a moment. Love and sex . . . Work and vocation . . . Christmas and being happy . . . Toil and rest . . . Lennon & McCartney. . . Hey, even Michael Jackson and being an African American! I mean, what is it with us? What is it that makes human beings want to pull things apart? Why does the experience of equilibrium, balance, harmony scare us so?
Now, we're a bunch of Christians here tonight. And we are just as prone to blowing things apart as anyone else. But more so. Because the people of God have an alarmingly persistent capacity to blow apart the most fundamental relationship of them all, the chord which sets the tone for everything else. And its simply this: being with God . . . and doing God's work. Being with God . . . and doing God's work.
Picture the people Amos was dealing with. These were seriously screwed people, I'm telling you. Amos complains that the leading citizens of Israel, the priests of Yahweh amongst them, had become traffickers in human flesh. 'They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals', he says. 'They grind the poor into the dust' he says. But all the while, as this is going on, what are these same leaders up to? Well. They're keeping up appearances aren't they! They're heading out to the holy places of Bethel and Gilgal to offer their sacrifices and their songs of praise to Yahweh! Needless to say, God is not impressed. In fact, he's very, very, upset. 'I hate, I despise your festivals; I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream'. Now, fairly obviously, the religious folk of Amos' time had a small problem with hypocrisy. The leaders of Samaria had separated the worship of God from the doing of God's work. They thought they could fill their cupboards with the produce of other people's labour and still turn up to church; they imagined that God wouldn't be overly concerned with their slavery auctions so long as they continued to tithe. They were wrong! That's fairly obvious in hindsight. But have you ever considered how it is that they came to lose their way in the first place? How deeply religious people turned into colonizers and slave-traders?
To ask that question is to step down from the high pulpit of the prophet and ask why, for example, Martin Luther King, hero of faith, was unfaithful to his wife on more than one occasion. Or why the church missions, committed to the welfare of Aboriginal people, colluded in the removal of children not just from their parents and communities, but from each other as well. To ask that question is to withdraw the pointing finger of hindsight and turn, instead, toward the mirror of one's own self. 'How is it that I, a person committed to Christ and his work, do the things that I do and say the things that I say. Because surely many of those things that I do, and fail to do, are not after the way of Jesus, whom I claim to follow'.
Let me suggest an answer to that question, an answer which comes from my reflections not only upon Scripture and upon the behaviour of others, but also upon my own life, my own behaviour, my own sin. Christian people become instruments of oppression and abuse when they cease to pray. Let me repeat that. Christian people become agents of abuse when they cease to pray.
'Wait a minute', I hear you say, 'those people in Amos' time prayed a lot. They were always in church praying and singing hymns. But it obviously had no effect on what they did. So how do you figure that?'. Well, let me suggest to you that there's a great big difference between making a lot of noise in church and praying. Indeed, that making a lot of noise is often the very opposite of prayer. But rather than rush at what I mean here too quickly, I'd like to put the foot on the brake for a moment and invite you, instead, to attend to that parable which we head from Luke's gospel earlier on. And to hear it, perhaps, in a different key than you've heard it before.
I want to make just two observations about the parable tonight. There's much more that could be said, but tonight I want to limit myself to just these two things. First, did you notice the question the lawyer didn't ask Jesus? You'll remember they'd been speaking about the two great commandments: 'Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself'. 'Do this, and you will live', Jesus had said. And then the lawyer asked 'Who is my neighbour'. Which is a perfectly fine question, except that it betrays a fatal kind of arrogance about the side of the equation he perhaps should have asked about. 'Who is my God?' This lawyer, you see, was a faculty member of the local theological school. You know, the prestigious one. In Jerusalem. On the hill. Next to the temple. He knew all about God. Or thought he did. He'd probably written several books on the topic. So why ask about something he already knew everything about?
Second, did you notice that Jesus didn't actually answer the lawyer's question - the one he asked, as opposed to the one he didn't ask? The lawyer asked 'who is my neighbour', and Jesus replied not with a definition of the neighbour, but with a story about how neighbours behave. About the being of a neighbour, if you like. Now why would he do that? Why would he deliberately sidestep the lawyer's question like that? I submit to you that the story of the good samaritan is actually an answer to the question the lawyer failed to ask: 'Who is God'. And I submit that Jesus told the story because this lawyer, despite all his learning and his knowledge, did not know the answer to that question. That God is one who has mercy. God is one who has mercy.
How do good men and women of God become abusers? By failing to understand that God is one who has mercy. By not, in other words, ever really experiencing the grace and mercy of God for themselves. Oh, we may have the theory of grace down pat. We may know the bible verses off by heart. We may even sing about God's love week by week in church. But somehow the truth of that grace, that mercy, has never really taken root in our hearts. We have never allowed ourselves to face the sheer givenness of the gift: we have never allowed ourselves to confront the possibility that we might accept God's acceptance of us. And so, not being able to accept ourselves, and love ourselves, we fail to love others. With the same plumbline we use to abuse ourselves, we abuse these precious others that God places in our path. And we do so, very often, without even a shade of awareness that we do it.
There is only one real solution to the problem I have described. And I am convinced of this more and more. We must dedicate some special time each day, each week, each month, each year, to what the Benedictines call the prayer of the heart. A prayer which consists not of telling God things, or presenting God with a shopping list, or even saying the daily office, valuable as it is. The prayer of the heart is simply becoming still enough to hear the voice of God. The still, quiet voice at the centre of all things. The voice whose nature is always to have mercy, to offer grace and forgiveness, to heal the wounded soul. The voice which speaks not in English, or German or even French, that most divine of languages, but in the soothing language of love's silent gaze.
God has ordained that the work of God should flow from a deep and abiding being with God, from a veritable baptism in the love which holds all things together in Christ. Doing and being, mission and prayer, prophecy and mysticism. What God has joined together let no one separate. Our future as individuals, as families and communities, and even as nations, depends on it.
In the name of God - Earthmaker, Painbearer, Lifegiver - as in the beginning, so now, and forevermore. Amen.